An E. coli outbreak that sickened people in 36 states and triggered warnings not to eat romaine lettuce this spring has been traced to water in a canal in the Yuma, Ariz., region – and the outbreak is now officially over, federal officials say.
"Suspect product is no longer being harvested or distributed from this area and is no longer available in stores or restaurants, due to its 21-day shelf life," the Food and Drug Administration says.
Five people have died because of the outbreak and 96 were sent to hospitals, the FDA says in its latest update. Overall, the agency says, 210 people were made ill by the E. coli outbreak.
Alarm over the outbreak was relaxed somewhat in late May, after regulators confirmed that the harvesting season for romaine in Yuma had passed, and that the main U.S. source for romaine had shifted to California's Salinas Valley.
The first cases in the outbreak were reported on March 13; one month later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had traced the E. coli to lettuce that was grown in the area around Yuma.
Citing the CDC's analysis of water samples that were taken from a canal in the Yuma region, the FDA says the investigation found E. coli in the water "with the same genetic finger print as the outbreak strain."
Investigators are now working to learn how the E. coli got into the water, and how the water, in turn, contaminated the romaine lettuce from several farms.
As he announced the news of the breakthrough in tracing the cause of the illnesses, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb also addressed the notion that U.S. consumers are seeing more foodborne outbreaks than they have in the past.
"The answer to that question is that we don't believe we are seeing more outbreaks," Gottlieb said. "In fact, we believe food is safer than perhaps ever before and today we're better at finding outbreaks when they occur."